NPC Tactics: Magical Specialists

Volo’s Guide to Monsters includes stat blocks for 11 different magic-using specialists: wizards from eight different schools and warlocks of three different patrons. The wizards are all at least level 7; the warlocks, even higher. There are also a level 9 war priest, a level 10 blackguard (antipaladin) and a level 18 archdruid. Every one of these spellcasters has a different repertoire of spells. To come up with individual tactics for each of them would take me the next two weeks.

Rather than tackle each one separately, then, I’m going to share some rules of thumb for developing tactics for a spellcasting NPC. (more…)

NPC Tactics: Swashbucklers and Master Thieves

Today I take a look at two roguish NPCs in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, one flashy, one furtive: the swashbuckler and the master thief.

The swashbuckler of Volo’s doesn’t bear much resemblance to the swashbuckler rogue archetype in the Sword Cost Adventurer’s Guide. Instead, it has a passive feature, Suave Defense, that increases its armor class and an action economy–enhancing feature, Lightfooted, that grants it either Dash or Disengage as a bonus action. (This is actually a slightly nerfed version of Cunning Action, which also allows the user to Hide.)

The swashbuckler is distinguished by an exceptionally high Dexterity; expert proficiency in Acrobatics, Athletics and Persuasion; and a triple Florentine-style Multiattack. The Dexterity suggests a sniper, but the swashbuckler’s attacks are melee-focused. (The dagger can be used as a ranged weapon, but a swashbuckler who does this forfeits two-thirds of that Multiattack.) Because its Strength and Constitution are only slightly above average, we have to imagine a fighting style that somehow allows the swashbuckler to strike at melee range yet avoid getting hit on its opponents’ turns. How do we achieve this, given that the swashbuckler has only a normal 30-foot movement speed? (more…)

NPC Tactics: Apprentice Wizards, Bards and Martial Arts Adepts

The new NPCs in Volo’s Guide to Monsters fall into three categories: prospective boss enemies or boss lieutenants (the archdruid, blackguard, champion, kraken priest, war priest and warlord), magic-using specialists (the abjurer, conjurer, diviner, enchanter, evoker, illusionist, necromancer, transmuter and three warlock variants) and “other” (the apprentice wizard, bard, martial arts adept, master thief and swashbuckler). Analyzing the magic-users requires close, time-consuming attention to their spell repertoires, so I’m going to put off talking about them for now; ditto the archdruid, kraken priest and war priest. The blackguard, champion and warlord are mostly uncomplicated brutes. The “other” category looks more interesting, so that’s where I’ll start. (more…)

NPC Tactics: Tribal Warriors and Berserkers

I have a bone to pick with the fifth-edition Monster Manual’s description of the tribal warrior, as well as the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide’s description of the Reghed and Uthgardt barbarians. In brief, the repeated insistence that these people defer to a chief (“the greatest or oldest warrior of the tribe or a tribe member blessed by the gods”) is based on ignorance of the difference between bands and tribes on the one hand and chiefdoms on the other, and of the egalitarian nature of traditional societies.

Every dungeon master who aspires to any degree of coherent world-building needs to be a Jared Diamond aficionado. His best-known book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, examines the factors that cause certain societies to advance technologically and socially faster than others (spoiler: abundant access to high-protein staple grains, easily domesticated animals and long east-west trade routes gives a people a major leg up). His book Collapse examines the factors that cause societies to stagnate or go extinct: environmental degradation, changing climate, hostile neighbors, lack of friendly trading partners and overly rigid ideology. And his most recent book, The World Until Yesterday, examines the features of traditional societies that set them apart from modern ones.


NPC Tactics: Archmages

The mage was complicated; the archmage, even more so. Strap in.

As with the mage, the archmage’s ability scores imply an aversion to melee combat, a strong self-preservation impulse, and a strategically and tactically savvy view of the battlefield. We can also determine, by reading between the lines, that the archmage is a wizard of the abjuration school, because Magic Resistance is a feature that abjuration wizards obtain at level 14. Mechanically, that doesn’t mean much, since Magic Resistance is the only abjuration feature the Monster Manual gives the archmage; still, this inference adds a dash of flavor to our archmage’s personality. Abjuration is the magic of prevention. All other things being equal, the archmage’s primary impulse is to shut you down.

The mage’s spells topped out at 5th level, but the archmage’s go all the way up to 9th, with only one slot each of the top four levels. I assume this was to simplify an already extremely complicated and powerful enemy. What it means for us is that those four slots are reserved exclusively for the archmage’s four highest-level spells: time stop, mind blank, teleport and globe of invulnerability. And mind blank, according to the MM, is pre-cast before combat begins—along with mage armor and stoneskin—so that slot isn’t even available. (How does the archmage know to combat is about to begin? Dude, 20 Intelligence. “Nolwenn an Gwrach, Supra-genius!”)